Apologetics in a Secular Age

Apologetics in a Secular Age May 9, 2016

In his summary of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, James KA Smith observes how apologetics accommodates to the social imaginary of the secular age. Apologetic responses to secularism have too often “conceded the game; that is, the responses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways” (How (Not) To Be Secular, 51). He quotes Taylor saying, “the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence” (quoted, 51; from Taylor, 225).

Instead of defending Christianity in particular, apologetes defended generic theism. As Smith puts it, “the particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more general deity – as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice” (51). This is a tale told in detail in Michael Buckley’s At the Origin of Modern Atheism.

Secularism seeps into Christian apologetics in other ways as well. The modern self – what Taylor describes as the “buffered” self as opposed to the “porous” self of pre-modern Christianity – is detached from the world, rather than embedded in a world that is in turn embedded in God and His work. The buffered self is able to transcend limitations; only a buffered self can adopt a “view from nowhere,” only a buffered self works on the pretense that it can survey the whole of the world.

The rise of theodicy is one result. Taylor writes, “Once we claim to understand the universe, and how it works; once we even try to explain how it works by invoking its being created for our benefit, then this explanation is open to clear challenge: We know how things go, and we know why they were set up, and we can judge whether the first meets the purpose defined in the second” (Smith, 65; quoting Taylor, 306). No mysteries remain to the transcendent buffered self; even the problem of evil can be explained. The rise of “worldview” is another. As Smith put it, what has changed is “precisely the emergence of the disengaged, ‘world picture’ confidence in our powers of exhaustive surveillance” (65).

What’s left out of this account is the role of revelation. Since it comes from the God does possess exhaustive surveillance, it provides a glimpse into the God’s-eye view of the world. Ultimately, this just moves Taylor’s (and Smith’s) point back a step, because human beings don’t have exhaustive and infallible knowledge of revelation. We can no more survey the whole of the Bible at a glance than we can survey the whole of reality.

So the point stands: the buffered self adopts a “world picture” or a “worldview.” And talk of worldview can unwittingly support the anthropology of the very secularism it aims to refute.

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